If you don't have bowel movements as regularly as normal, you may suffer from constipation.
Around 4 million Americans suffer from frequent constipation— most are women. Medical experts think this may be because food travels more slowly through a woman’s gastrointestinal tract (GI tract).
The effect of female hormones on the GI tract may also be a contributing factor.
Constipation occurs when waste matter moves too slowly through the intestinal tract, causing the tract to become backed up and too dry to pass, preventing bowel movements.
Symptoms of constipation include hard stools, bloating, stomach cramps, loss of appetite, headache, fatigue, and insomnia. If you suffer from constipation, avoid straining while trying to have a bowel movement. This strain can cause anal tearing and hemorrhoids.
Causes of constipation include dehydration, particular foods in some cases (e.g. bread and cheese), inactivity, stress, overuse of laxatives, and certain medications.
If you don't drink enough water, you will quickly become dehydrated. Dehydration can make you constipated, particularly if you are dehydrated regularly.
To stay hydrated, drink at least eight 8-oz glasses of water daily — more if you work out.
A 2002 study published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology showed that drinking carbonated water helped ease constipation in patients with functional dyspepsia and constipation. (Cuomo et al., 2002)
Constipation relief begins with healthy habits. One way to keep your bowel movements moving and find quick relief from constipation is to make sure you get plenty of fiber in your diet.
Women should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day. Men should aim for 35 grams. (Harvard Health Publishing, 2006)
Fiber can help bring constipation relief because it increases the bulk of the stool and the consistency of bowel movements, both of which make it easier to pass stools.
Fiber falls into two categories:
This type of fiber absorbs water from your intestines to form a gel-like paste. This helps to soften the stool, improve the consistency, and facilitate passage. Foods containing soluble fiber include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Lima beans
- Brussel’s sprouts
- Psyllium fiber
If you suffer from a functional bowel disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or chronic constipation with an unknown cause, then you may want to avoid soluble fiber such as bran.
A 1994 study published in Lancet showed that wholemeal wheat and bran can worsen the symptoms of these conditions in 55% of people tested. (Francis et al., 1994)
Some types of soluble fiber are fermentable. This means they lose their water-holding capacity — so they may be ineffective for treating certain forms of constipation.
In this case, the best choice for constipation is psyllium, which is a gentle, non-fermenting source of soluble fiber.
This type of fiber brings constipation relief by bulking up the stools and helping them pass quickly and easily through the intestines.
Sources of insoluble fiber include:
- Nuts cauliflower
- Green beans
- Whole grains
Laxatives should not be the first constipation relief solution you reach for. But if you’ve added water and fiber to your diet, and you still can’t find constipation relief, laxatives may provide a temporary solution.
If you've suffered from constipation for a long time, your doctor may recommend laxatives. However, you should not take laxatives over a long period, otherwise, you may become dependent on them to have a bowel movement. In severe cases, the bowel can collapse from laxative overuse.
Also, when you are ready to stop taking them, you should do so gradually.
There are several different types of laxative. These include:
These can be used daily because they are equivalent to fiber supplements. They make your stool softer and bigger. In some cases, they can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb medications.
They may also cause side effects including, gas, bloating, and cramps. If you take bulk-forming laxatives, you should drink plenty of water.
This type of laxative adds liquid to your stools, making them easier to pass. This means you can find constipation relief without having to strain during a bowel movement. This may be the best choice for constipation relief if your condition is due to surgery or childbirth.
These provide constipation relief by drawing more fluid through your intestines. If you have diabetes, then you should seek medical advice before taking this kind of laxative as it can imbalance electrolytes.
This type of laxative provides constipation relief by coating the stool to make it smoother, so it can easily pass through the intestines.
In this case, constipation relief is brought about as the laxative draws more fluid into your stool.
These laxatives provide constipation relief by stimulating the intestinal muscles to contract, which helps to push the stool out. Although these laxatives provide constipation relief fast, they can cause side effects such as diarrhea and cramping.
All types of laxatives should only be used for a very brief period.
Exercise can help to relieve constipation in two main ways.
- It reduces the time it takes waste to pass through the large intestine. This brings constipation relief because it lowers the amount of water your body can absorb from the stool as it passes through, keeping the stool softer and bulkier.
- Aerobic exercise increases your heart rate and breathing. This, in turn, stimulates the natural muscle contractions of your colon, which helps stools to pass easily. Just getting up and moving around for 10-15 minute several times per day can help.
Although this doesn’t work for everyone, for some people, caffeine can bring constipation relief. It works because caffeine stimulates the muscles in your digestive system, especially the rectal muscles.
In a 1998 study published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 12 healthy subjects had a sensor probe placed in their colon. The next day the subjects were given three drinks of coffee and one of water.
The results showed that coffee stimulates motor activity in the colon. Not only that, the extent of stimulation is almost as much as a meal. (Rao et al., 1998)
Probiotics Foods or Supplements
If you have been suffering from constipation for some time, this can cause an imbalance of bacteria in your gut and intestines. Probiotic foods or supplements can help to redress the balance. A 2014 review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined numerous studies which tested the use of probiotics in the treatment of functional constipation. (Dimidi et al., 2014)
The results showed that probiotics may be able to provide constipation relief by improving stool frequency and stool transit time. Foods which naturally contain probiotics include:
- Some yogurts
Strains of probiotics recommended for constipation relief include:
Try a probiotic supplement daily for a minimum of 4 weeks to see if you notice the total benefits.
A Low-FODMAP Diet
In some cases, chronic constipation can be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Many medical experts recommend a low-FODMAP diet to treat IBS, and this could help to alleviate your constipation symptoms.
A low-FODMAP diet is a type of elimination diet that involves cutting out foods high in fermentable carbohydrates. A few examples of such foods include:
- Gluten-containing grains such as wheat
- Lactose-containing dairy
- Onions and Garlic
- High fructose sweeteners such as honey
These foods are eliminated for a period, then reintroduced gradually. This way, you can see which foods are causing your problems and can eliminate them altogether. If you suffer from IBS, which is constipation dominant, a low-FODMAP diet may not be enough by itself to provide constipation relief.
You will still also need to pay attention to other aspects of your lifestyle, such as getting plenty of water and exercise.
Magnesium citrate is a form of laxative that provides constipation relief by softening the stool. In moderate amounts, it is a viable over-the-counter solution for constipation.
If you don’t mind the taste of them, prunes and prune juice can be a great natural solution for constipation relief. As well as being rich in fiber, prunes contain sorbitol. Sorbitol is a natural laxative that pulls water into the intestine to bulk up the stool and help its passage.
The recommended dose is about seven prunes per day or 50 grams. If you suffer from IBS, you may want to avoid prunes because sugar alcohols such as sorbitol are high in FODMAPS.
When You Can’t Find Constipation Relief
It doesn’t matter which solution you choose for constipation relief. You should always give yourself plenty of time to use the bathroom and pass a stool when you feel the need to go.
Holding back the urge to have a bowel movement can exacerbate your constipation. If possible, set aside several times a day when you can be sure you will not be disturbed.
If you suffer from constipation, do not ignore it. If left untreated, constipation can cause further complications like tears in the skin surrounding your anus and hemorrhoids. Straining too hard may even result in rectal prolapse, which will require surgery.
You should seek medical advice straight away if you have any of the following problems along with constipation:
- Severe stomach pain
- Bloody stools
- Unexplained weight loss
- Inability to have a bowel movement for several days.
You should also seek medical advice if you have had difficulty passing stools for more than three weeks and the constipation remedies you have tried are not working.